Interpreting a biblical passage is a critical element of the preacher’s task. Principles of hermeneutics should be readily accessible to the good preacher, second nature really.
Numerous hermeneutics textbooks list the principles—awareness of literary form and the influence of genre; concern for the grammatical choices made by the author in his efforts to be understood; the significance of authorial intent; knowledge of the relevant historical background factors influencing the meaning of the text, such as geography, religio-politics, culture, etc.; deep sensitivity to the written context, both immediate and within the flow of the book as a whole; recognition that scripture does not contradict scripture, but does interpret scripture, yet the importance of remaining focused on the particular text, and so on.
But there is one key dimension that tends to be overlooked in hermeneutics texts and yet should be front and center in our concern as preachers. Perhaps we should call it the moral blindness principle, or the interpreter’s heart principle.
Jesus put his finger on the issue in John 5. As he spoke to the trained religious elite of his day, he turned defense into attack. He had been accused of breaking the Sabbath, to which he made sure they accused him of something more substantial (see v18). Then he laid out some key truths in respect to the Father and Son, around issues of life-giving and judgment (see vv. 19-29).
From verse 30 he started pointing directly at his accusers and speaking in the first and second person. He called his witness in support of his claim (acknowledging John the Baptist in passing) who was first and foremost his own Father. Yes, there were the works he did, but the focus is really his Father. But then he made it very personal. He told the Jewish leadership that they had never seen him, didn’t know him and didn’t have his word in them. That is strange, as these were the Bible quoting leadership fraternity of Jerusalem. How could they be accused of not having the Bible down?
Jesus threw a hermeneutical failure at them. They were certainly diligent, searching the Scriptures for top life tips, but they missed the person revealed there. How? Because they did not have the love of God in them. How could that be? Because of a mutually exclusive issue that might be one of the greatest dangers we face as preachers ...
They were concerned about the horizontal reality of what people thought of them, which meant they were not concerned about the vertical reality of what God thought. They loved getting glory from each other, rather than the glory that comes from God.
That is moral blindness. That is the principle of the interpreter’s heart. If my heart is concerned about what people think of me, I may well be blind to the truth of the text I claim to understand and then proclaim to others. If you preach, ponder this principle prayerfully—it is one we cannot afford to miss.
John 5. What a chapter. Jesus was accused of encouraging Sabbath breaking. He turned that charge into one of apparent blasphemy, then proceeded to defend himself against the accusation. For ten verses he laid out truths about life-giving and judgment in respect to his relationship with his Father. Then from verses 30–47 the defendant turned prosecutor as he went after his accusers with a sequence of witnesses who not only defended his position, but highlighted the culpability of his accusers. It is wonderful legal drama.
At the climactic moment in that sequence, Jesus poked his accusers in the chest in respect to their handling of the Bible. They searched for top tips in order to receive glory for each other, but they were blind to the revelation of God through his Son in the Old Testament. They cared for horizontal glory rather than vertical glory.
This raises an issue we should ponder when we study a Bible passage, not least when we are preparing to preach. We need to be alert to a couple of realities:
1. Look for God’s self-revelation, not just for life advice (or even for a sermon). Wonderfully, our God wants to be known much more than we naturally want to know him. And we need to recognize that our natural tendency will always be to not see him, but to default back to seeing the Bible content as material for our sake. Some naturally default to intellectual curiosity, others to intellectual skepticism, others to life coaching tips, etc. Whatever the default nuance may be, the default orientation will be toward self rather than toward God. Only as he stirs our hearts and gives us a taste for knowing him will we discover the delight of pursuing the God who first pursued us.
2. As you look at Jesus, he looks at you. Jesus does not remain simply the object of our curiosity. As we study him, he turns that around to study us. As we accuse him, we find ourselves convicted. As we probe his character, we find our own character probed. The shift from defendant to accused found in John 5 is a shift we experience all the time if our eyes are on him. This turns Bible study into a glorious conversation, if we are willing to engage in such.